Translated by David Hackston
Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
Crossing is perhaps one of the vaguest book titles I have come across recently, especially given the trend towards sentence-length titles (think Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine or The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared). I had my misgivings about it, suspecting an attempt at mono-word artistry. However, Crossing captures exactly what Pajtim Statovci’s second novel is about: crossing borders, both geographical and psychological, in a multi-layered play with identities.
Across the span of several decades, Crossing follows Bujar and Agim, two friends who, at the outset, live in identical apartments in the same house in totalitarian Tirana. Amidst political upheaval in Albania and Yugoslavia, their life is tainted by poverty and misery: the capital’s streets are littered with desperate people selling anything and everything they can get their hands on, people disappear never to be seen again, and refugees drown attempting the desperate crossing to Italy and a better life. When Bujar’s father dies of cancer, his family is propelled further into destitution: the mother locks herself into her bedroom, and her children are left to beg in the streets and to live off leftovers from their neighbours. Agim, on the other hand, faces a struggle of a different kind: when his mother discovers him dressed in her dress and jewellery, he is left with scarring from his father’s lashes.
But the misery drives the friends to dream big, with Agim firmly believing that there is nothing they cannot be, and that anyone can choose whatever identity he – or she – wants. It’s Agim’s firm faith in making a future for oneself that pushes the friends to run away, first from their house into the streets and to a homeless existence in Tirana, and finally an itinerant life across the world.
What unfolds is a tale of identities in the most postmodern sense of the word: the only constants are fluidity, repeatedly recreating oneself – if there even is a self – and starting new lives in new settings. This fluidity also characterizes Statovci’s story-telling. Just as the characters mislead those around them, presenting themselves as whoever they wish, the author misleads his readers, nudging them down the wrong paths of interpretation. Without giving too much away, the reader ends up in the same situations as the characters that the protagonists meet, asking what, if anything, is true, and whether there is a line to be drawn between self-determined identities and lies.
All this is set against crossings between the story’s reality and mythical tales stemming from Albanian folkore. This gives the novel a dreamlike quality, where the mythical underlines the brutality of reality, and people are tied together – whether they accept it or not – by greater narratives.
It’s a complex structure, both psychologically and as a literary choice, but Statovci pulls it off. Where he stumbles, however, is on something much more mundane: he overloads the story with tragedy. I’m not asking for a sugar-coated presentation as that is not how reality works. You cannot simply dismiss the poor, nasty, brutish and short aspects of life. But that does not, I believe at least, extend to using continued misery as a literary device. There is no light nor hope, and the series of events is brutally hopeless to the point of predictability, reducing many of the scenes to second-hand tropes. For example, when Bujar is horrifically abused in a harrowing scene in the backroom of a restaurant, the scene loses much of its power just because the reader has been forced into a mindset where they expect only the most awful to happen. Sometimes less is more, and an overload of tragedy takes its edge away.
Statovci is hailed as something of a literary genius in Finland where his novel was originally published, collecting several notable literary awards to his name. However, this greatness doesn’t necessarily come across from Crossing: in many ways it’s clever, brave and cunning, but it crosses the line into clichéd misery several times too many.
Anna is a bookworm, linguistics student and student journalist.
Pajtim Statovci, Crossing, translated by David Hackston (Pushkin Press, 2019). 978-1782275107, 272pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via affiliate link.